The House I Live In

The House I Live In

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

If Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight was concerned with the military-industrial complex, then this more personal but equally disturbing film suggests, among other things, that a sort of prison-industrial complex is beginning to develop. Penitentiaries, he argues, are moving, thanks in large part to the US 'War on Drugs', from being facilities where people are punished, rehabilitated and released, to money-making, privatised institutions which people rely on to boost the local economy.

And if there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with that picture, it's really just the tip of the iceberg.

This is a very personal documentary for the filmmaker, who was inspired to make it after finding out about the death of the son of his family's African American maid Nannie Jeter. As he began to examine the drug situation that led to the death, he became incensed by laws that seem to be making the problem worse instead of better.

A huge amount of interviewees, including The Wire's David Simon and author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, take us through the history of the war on drugs, since Nixon first coined the phrase, examining how sentences have become increasingly draconian and treatment and rehabilitation less of a priority, while all the time, no matter how much money is spent, the problem continues to grow.

Jarecki, as always, does a good job of presenting a huge amount of information in bite-size chunks, examining everything from the ways in which poor communities become hooked on a drug economy to the legal discrimination that sees crack cocaine (used by the poor) carry an exponentially heftier sentence than the powdered variety (used by the rich), to the police incentives that make drug arrests much more easy and profitable than chasing down hard-to-catch criminals.

While all of this is shocking, the personal aspect of the documentary is problematic for Jarecki. An early section explaining his own family's history - his parents escaped the persecution of the pogroms and the Nazis - feels particularly laboured, although he comes to rely on it later, while his eagerness to 'put himself' in the frame often feels unnecessarily contrived. He's not made for being at the lens end of the camera and seeing him shambling about the place just interrupts the flow of the rest of the film.

Jarecki's decision to liken the systematic incarceration of people along racist and social lines - beginning with the Chinese/opium and ending with poor white/crack cocaine - to the Holocaust, also feels a bit of a reach, and, even with his own family history, the decision to do this is likely to alienate some audiences. Still, this is just one element of a powerful film that offers a reasoned and compelling argument for looking again at a legal system which profits from prisoners, while society as a whole is poorer as a result.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2012
Share this with others on...
The House I Live In packshot
Does the War on Drugs do more harm than good?
Amazon link

Director: Eugene Jarecki

Writer: Eugene Jarecki, Christopher St John

Starring: Eugene Jarecki, Nannie Jeter, Betty Chism, Dennis Whidbee, Elzie Hooks, Robert Wilson, David Simon, Michael Correa, Gabor Mate, Charles Bowden, Mark W Bennet, Maurice Haltiwanger, Jim K McGough, Eric Franklin, Don Walker

Year: 2012

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: Netherlands, UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, US


Search database: